WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency had indications that about 50 members of Nicaraguan rebel organizations may have been involved in narcotics trafficking during the 1980s, but CIA personnel continued working with almost two dozen of the suspected figures, U.S. intelligence officials said Friday.
An internal CIA study found that none of the suspected drug traffickers were in the top leadership of the rebels known as contras and that no one in the agency aided or abetted the narcotics trade, the officials said.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, briefed reporters about the contents of a still-secret CIA report on charges that the agency turned a blind eye to drug trafficking among the contras, who fought a U.S.-financed war against Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government from 1981 to 1989.
"In some cases, we knew that the people we were dealing with would not qualify as Vienna choirboys, but we dealt with them nonetheless because of the value they brought," one official said. "In other cases, the allegations appear simply to have dropped through cracks in the bureaucracy."
This week's report by the CIA inspector general was the second of two volumes produced in response to a 1996 series of articles in the San Jose Mercury-News charging that the contras, with support from the U.S. government, introduced crack cocaine to the black neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles.
The first volume of the CIA report, released publicly last year, said the newspaper's charges were unfounded. The Mercury-News articles had touched off nationwide outrage, especially among African Americans.
The new volume did not turn up any significant new allegations of misconduct by either the contras or CIA personnel, but echoed earlier findings, the officials said.
A U.S. official who has read the new report said that it largely confirmed the findings of a 1989 Senate investigation led by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
"We had the same accounts," he said. "And we're talking about allegations [of drug trafficking], not proven cases. Some of the allegations were disproven, some were supported."
The inspector general's report faults the CIA's top officials at the time for failing to investigate some of the allegations, for giving unclear instructions to agency officers in the field and for inadequate record-keeping, the officials said.
"It is now much clearer what the definition is of troubling conduct [by a CIA contact] and clearer what you do and don't do about it," one official said. "It wasn't clear at the time."
The inspector general's report was sent to Congress this week but classified as secret because it identifies many CIA sources, officials said. The New York Times reported the contents of the report Friday.
Several members of Congress, including Kerry, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) called on the CIA to release the report publicly. "I really do resent this classified report coming out in bits and pieces, rather than in a form that would allow people to read it in its full context and draw their own conclusions," Waters said.
But a spokesman said CIA Director George J. Tenet has not made a decision on whether to release the report in a declassified form.